Now aged 59 and entitled to put the letters MBE after her name, Tracy Edwards is an international sports legend, the first woman to receive the Yachting Journalists’ Association’s Yachtsman of the Year Trophy. She put together the first-ever all-female team to compete in the prestigious Whitbread Around-the-World Race, in 1989/90. Rather than sinking or dropping out, as predicted by many of her male peers at the time, Edwards and her plucky crew won two of the five legs of the race outright and finished second overall in their boat’s class: the first time that England had ever done so well in the Whitbread, and unmatched since. Their story is told in the exciting 2019 documentary Maiden (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2019/07/25/maidens-all-female-crew-breaks-boundaries-in-the-male-dominated-sport-of-yacht-racing).
But Edwards got off to a rough start in life, kicked out of school at 15 for her rebellious behavior and literally running away to sea to flee an abusive stepfather. She spent her late teens and early 20s as a reckless “boat bum,” learning sailing skills mostly by taking jobs as a cook, deckhand and “stewardess.” It was on one of those gigs, a 1985 sailboat charter out of Martha’s Vineyard by a mysterious VIP, that she befriended the man who would later sponsor Maiden’s refurbishment and entry in the Whitbread Race: King Hussein I of Jordan.
By her own account, Edwards still had a lot of growing up to do at that point. She was headstrong, unfocused, combative and made many decisions that she would later to regret. Only with the perspective of many decades did she come to realize that not completing her education had been a hindrance. Today she has a college degree in Psychology and a professional commitment to protecting and uplifting youth – girls especially.
That’s why she is doing what she’s doing today: using her fame, and that of her historic sailboat, to raise funds for the Maiden Factor Foundation, to be channeled into not-for-profits around the globe that are helping girls get a full 12 years of schooling. For financial reasons, Edwards had to sell Maiden soon after her Whitbread Race triumph. After discovering the 58-foot aluminum boat rotting in the Seychelles in 2014, she crowdfunded her rebuild (with seed money provided by the late King Hussein’s daughter, Princess Haya) and relaunched her in 2018. The vessel’s new mission is not to compete, but to visit ports around the world, tell the Maiden story and inspire girls to do the things that everyone around them is telling them can’t be done.
This planned three-year world tour was interrupted by COVID, and during the downtime, Edwards got to thinking about the enhanced role that remote learning was likely to play in the future as a strategy for teaching girls who can’t safely go to schools in places like Afghanistan. She also fine-tuned the Foundation’s focus: to encourage participation by girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, both by getting the appropriate education and via networking and job referrals. An online meetup and resource site for girls and women in STEM is scheduled for launch this September on the Maiden Factor website (www.themaidenfactor.org).
Now that she can tour again, Maiden’s stops at port towns offer great opportunities for hands-on demonstrations of how STEM skills are applied in a practical way when navigating a sailboat. Last week, kids in Kingston got their chance to meet the Maiden crew and take workshops in sailing science, as the boat spent two full days in port at the Hudson River Maritime Museum on the Rondout waterfront. The Museum, the sloops Clearwater and Apollonia collaborated to host field trips for local schoolchildren.
The lessons were divided up into several “activity stations.” Aboard the Maiden, both girls and boys got to try their hands at raising a heavy sail using a winch and pulleys, working as a team. On the Museum grounds, a couple of other crew members taught a class called “How Wind Powers Sailboats,” which explained the science behind sailing. The kids assembled homemade anemometers out of straws and paper cups, learning how to use revolutions per minute to calculate windspeed, Maiden’s engineer Ami Hopkins said.
While she’s not going to be onboard for her boat’s current 22,000-mile three-year voyage (Liz Wardley is Maiden’s official skipper at present), Tracy Edwards was on hand to greet visitors to the Rondout last week, and full of praise for her crew’s local hosts. “The Hudson River Maritime Museum is so awesome!” she said. “We’ll be in New York until the end of June. I flew out for this leg because New York is one of my favorite cities.”
Maiden sailed back down the Hudson on June 11. After a sojourn in Brooklyn, she’ll spend some time on Long Island, where lucky raffle winners (https://go.rallyup.com/maidenfactor/campaign/details) will be able to watch the July 4 fireworks or take a day sail onboard the boat. Then it’s on up the New England coast to Mystic/Stonington, Connecticut; St. John’s, New Brunswick in Canada; back down to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island; and then across the Atlantic to the Azores and Dakar. The crew expects to be in Cape Town by December.